Tag Archives: Aaron Aaronsohn

“Lawrence IN Arabia”: A Centenary Backwards Gaze

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

I have a stack of books of poetry I will soon begin listing and making some comments on, but first I want to encourage anyone concerned with the ongoing conflicts at the eastern rim of the Mediterranean Sea to read Lawrence in Arabia, the subtitle of which proves to be the thematic summary of the Ottoman Empire’s dissolution. Although this year marks the centenary of the final year of World War I, I have been struck by how little commentary seems to mark this juncture. World War I apparently has as little presence in the lives of present-day American citizens as the Napoleonic Wars. Anderson’s subtitle, “War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern East,” instructs us to reconsider our indifference. The consequences of World War I, after all, are more turbulent than ever. The decision of President Trump’s administration, for instance, to move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is a choice made possible because of the cast of characters who epitomize the drama of Anderson’s scintillating, extraordinarily acute, and easy to follow narrative.

The primary advantage of Anderson’s book in examining the historical origins of the current multi-national crisis in the Middle East is that people other than T.E. Lawrence are as equally vivid as the book’s titular, best known protagonist. I have a hunch that this book’s capacious point of view was the inspiring triggering point in the dinner conversation with his editor Bill Thomas that Anderson mentions in his acknowledgements. As one reads about the lives of the Zionist agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn, a German spy named Curt Prufer, and the American agent for Standard Oil, William Yale, in Lawrence in Arabia, one begins to comprehend the ground-level simultaneity of global economic and political determinations with local aspirations for identity with land and its layers of ritual knowledge and daily enactments. Anderson’s book is an archeology of a volcanic eruption in the modern ear of human civilizations; our imaginations have faltered in the past in coming to terms with that epic event. With wit and precise detail, Anderson makes it all seem as if it were being told for the first time. Even those who believe they are familiar with this particular front of “imperial folly” will finish this book with a renewed ambivalence about whose claims to self-rule have any substantial legitimacy outside of self-interest.